Why Some Advertisers Should Resist Super Bowl Hype

Alan Morantz
Jan 12 · 3 min read

Mega-sporting events don’t always justify mega-advertising budgets. Here are the two conditions where it makes sense

Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl commercial (YouTube)

Advertisers, start your engines. No time for idling: the Super Bowl is just around the corner. And for the rest of us, we can just sit back and watch. After all, advertisements during the Super Bowl and similar mega-events are spectator sports themselves. Some of us focus on the novel creative approaches. Others gawk at the per-placement costs; 30-second spots for this year’s Super Bowl are going for up to $5.6 million.

Whatever the attraction, all these types of events hoover up global ad budgets for the simple reason that they guarantee extraordinary large audiences that devote an inordinate amount of time following the action. They attract not only event-based advertisers and sponsors but also ambush marketers (like Old Spice’s Smell Like a Man, Man campaign) and “opportunistic” marketers (those that boost their ad spend during the sporting event time period).

But is it a great marketing investment to go all-in during a big sporting event or is herd mentality at work? For a given business objective, do such investments really pay off or would it make better sense to focus on smaller scale initiatives? There are two factors that make me wonder: the high premium that these events command and the high amount of “noise” that makes it hard to actually stand out.

Research hasn’t been clear-cut. Some studies have confirmed an overall positive impact of advertising around major sports events, linking it to higher brand recall, purchase intentions, and movie ticket sales. But it’s not easy to generalize from these studies.

Two studies published a few years ago tried to fill in the gaps. One investigated the connection between conventional advertising and sales before, during, and after major sports events. It looked at four years of weekly observations for 206 brands in the UK across 64 consumer packaged goods categories.

The study confirmed that these events trigger an advertising surge: the number of advertising brands rose 7 percent and the average amount spent on advertising increased 10 percent. But it found that advertising effectiveness diminished, particularly before and during major sports events, in both the short and the long run.

From this, marketing researchers concluded that brands suffer from the clutter caused by the increased number of advertising messages competing for consumers’ attention.

Clearly, herding behaviour (I must advertise because everybody else is doing it) is not best strategy when a brand’s focus is on directly increasing sales through advertising.

The story may be more promising for sponsorship of sports events. A second study published at the same time investigated the connection between sponsorship investments and brand affect (the values and feelings that a brand projects). Using the 2010 FIFA World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, the researchers showed that sports event sponsorship does, indeed, increase brand affect. This makes sense: sponsorship is more about longer-term branding considerations than immediate sales lift.

When Does Sports-Event Advertising Make Sense?

In practical terms, sports marketing is not an all-or-nothing affair. Yes, advertisers get the greatest bang for the buck by focusing on non-event marketing. But there is still value in having visibility during a FIFA World Cup or Super Bowl. If there is a clear fit between the values associated with the event and those embodied by the brand, advertising around the event can strengthen brand image and positioning.

What the research shows is that sports-event advertising makes sense under two conditions:

  1. when investments are focused on single-sport events (not the Olympics); and
  2. when they are not incremental investments but big bets that offer a significant lift of the brand’s share of voice.

A Super Bowl or a FIFA World Cup gives brands a better chance of reaching a focused group of consumers multiple times. By outspending competitors, they’re better able to stand out from the clutter and gain more attention — and revenue — from consumers.

So advertisers, if you’re going to pony up for the Super Bowl this February, you’ll have to yell really loud to make it worth your effort.

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Alan Morantz

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I write about new management ideas. And other stuff. Author of Where Is Here: Canada’s Maps and the Stories They Tell.

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